WALSH ADMINISTRATION NEEDS A TRANSPORTATION MAP: Which Way On Comm. Ave. Design?

December 15, 2014

Mayor Marty Walsh visibly cares about helping underserved communities. And he is aggressively promoting the continuing building boom and accompanying (construction) jobs, as expressed in his statement to the Chamber of Commerce that “we hit the ground running…in development, education, housing, public health, and infrastructure.”  Unfortunately, it appears that the Mayor currently includes transportation as just a part of “infrastructure”, rather than a distinct critical element of city policy –streets and transportation are treated simply as extensions of the more important “building blocks” listed in his speech.

However, leverage also moves in the other direction: a city’s transportation systems set the context for and unleash energy in land use, job creation, and neighborhood improvement. Repeated studies show that both walkability and bikeability promote business growth, resident satisfaction, and public health.  Walsh’s recent promotion of transit-oriented development as key to the development of affordable housing, as well as his cooperation in branding the Red Line as a “Life Science Corridor”, are tacit acknowledgements of this relationship. And it’s true that certain stand-alone issues have gotten attention: late night bus service for downtown businesses, emergency fixes for the Seaport’s entry/exit mess, and the inevitable neighborhood complaints about parking.   But this is not a holistic vision. So far, his senior staff have not treated transportation as its own systemic entry-point for urban issues and quality of life.

POSITIVE SIGNS

A more holistic approach may emerge from Walsh’s promise to have transportation staff walk through every neighborhood noting problems. And, following a recommendation of his Transition Team, Walsh has appointed an Advisory Committee charged with the development of a “Boston Urban Mobility Plan”. (Full disclosure: LivableStreets has a representative on that committee.) Currently, however, this is simply a two-year process of soliciting public input rather than a commitment to action. So far, none of this yet adds up to a vision capable of generating policies and action that leverage transportation spending into better lives for all Boston residents and commuters.

In the meantime, Boston’s award-winning Complete Streets Guidelines have not been officially adopted as policy, although (fortunately) there are some staff people who are still trying to integrate its state-of-the-art good ideas into road designs. The slow-down is even more pronounced in the once thriving effort to make Boston a “world class city for bicycling” – which is often the opening wedge for improvements for pedestrians and transit users as well. The city’s Bicycle Network Plan is no longer referenced, much less used as a guide for street work. This despite the admittance by senior Walsh staffers that bicycle advocates were one of the most organized, visible, and vocal constituents of the mayoral election. According to the Boston Cyclists Union newsletter, “Outside of the addition of paint to a few locations such as Cambridge St. in Allston, and the groundbreaking new truck sideguards ordinance pushed by the Mayor himself, the city’s progress on bike safety has slowed significantly in 2014. Public meetings on and talk of the cycletrack around the Public Garden have evaporated. The plan for the first contraflow lane on Hemenway Street in the Fenway neighborhoods has been shelved without notice. A bike lane set to be added to a key connection for South Boston residents–the W. 4th St. Bridge–has been put on hold.” We can only hope that the recent bike ride that Mayor Walsh took with people from the Cyclists Union, Bikes Not Bombs, LivableStreets, and the Roxbury/Dorchester neighborhood signals increased interest in this issue.

Ironically, the most powerful current inducement for improvement in non-car transportation – subway, trolley, bus, bicycling, and walking – comes from the controversial effort to bring the 2024 Olympics to Boston. The Boston 2024 Olympic Committee is seeking to distinguish its bid and keep taxpayer costs down by describing their vision as a “car free” event – based on the assumption that city and state governments will construct nearly all of the proposed non-car-focused transportation improvements listed in various planning documents and bond authorization bills.

REDUCING THE COMMON WEALTH

Transportation’s current low priority within the Walsh Administration is shown most clearly in the lack of top-level vision and leadership given to the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) and the Department of Public Works (DPW). Though Walsh committed to filling all cabinet positions by year’s end, there is no public evidence of any progress in searches for either new departmental Commissioners or for the cabinet-level Director who is supposed to be in charge of both. So both agencies have temporary Acting Commissioners left over from the Menino era.

The leadership vacuum has resulted in internal maneuverings to protect department turf and the individualizing of design approaches – whomever was once assigned a project holds on and does it his own way. One of the most painful examples of this lack of coherence has been the conflicting plans and different public input process for different sections of Commonwealth Avenue – a problem exacerbated by Boston University’s and it’s consultant’s commitment to an out-of-date, car-centric perspective on safety.

Everyone agrees that Comm. Ave. desperately needs improvement.   It’s got the highest number of pedestrians and bicyclists of any road in the city, along with congestion-causing numbers of trucks and cars, and the slowest trolley system in the urban area. However, the sections of this extremely busy street being designed by the BTD for the BU Bridge to Packards Corner blocks (aka Phase 2A) are following very different public-input process and incorporating very different design philosophies than the sections being designed by the DPW covering Packards Corner to Warren/Kelton Street (aka Phases 3 & 4).  Ironically, given DPW’s past reputation as being hostile to anything that would impede car movement, the DPW now seem much more responsive to public suggestion and more progressive in their willingness to incorporate multi-modal facilities than the left-over BTD leadership.

BTD MIS-SETPS

The Boston Transportation Department, under its current temporary leadership, has flagrantly violated its own public-input protocols.   There was no “concept-stage” opportunity for suggestions, a total lack of response to the written suggestions community members and advocates sent in after the 25%-of-design meeting several years ago and again more recently after realizing that plans were being rushed towards completion, and so far the only 75%-of-design-completion “public meeting” was one called by BU students and the BU Bikes group.

In addition, despite BTD’s role in creating the city’s Complete Streets Guidelines, the original BTD design for the BU Bridge to Packards Corner section is car-centric and lacks the components that most Advocates think are needed: protected bike lanes (cycle tracks), raised crosswalks and wider sidewalks (the plan actually proposes to narrow sidewalks), additional and improved crossings (especially around the Star Market and Babcock T crossing), faster Green Line travel, and traffic-calming narrower lanes and sharper turns (the plan calls for wider car lanes and “softer” turns) – not to mention the cutting down of mature trees and limitations on sidewalk cafes that the design requires.

It is only because of an enormous effort, led by BU’s own students with the support of the city’s transportation Advocacy groups (whose increasingly tight coalition has significantly increased their impact), that BTD is finally bending. Advocacy groups working in support of the students have come up with a united vision of how to include improvements for trolley passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars.   And it appears that the public pressure is forcing BTD to make some improvements, although even those are complicated by lack of coordination with MBTA plans to upgrade and consolidate its Green Line trolley stops in the area to comply with ADA regulations. The good news is that Acting Transportation Department Commissioner Jim Gilooly has publicly stated that “the one decision you can take to the bank is…there will be significant improvement, if not dramatic improvement,” from the original plans – although no one yet knows what he means by that – a concern increased by BTD and the BU Administration’s current touting of another inadequate approach that would simply widen bike lanes rather than create physically separated space.

It’s time for Mayor Walsh to step in. Transportation is too important to be left to squabbling departments. We need a vision that starts from the reality that the economic growth we seek creates population (or at least employment) growth and therefore increased transportation needs – which will inescapably lead to increased car congestion (and pollution) unless we massively increase the availability and attractiveness of other modes. We need good leadership. We need to take advantage of this long-delayed upgrading of Commonwealth Avenue to make it the safe, efficient, multi-modal, Walsh Administration precedent-setting transportation corridor that it needs to be.

———————-

Thanks to Matt Danish for his encyclopedic knowledge about Commonwealth Avenue and to the many people whose anecdotes and comments have shaped my perception of the new Administration. The opiniions are, of course, totally my own.

———————-

Related previous posts:

> FROM BETTER TO WORSE ON COMMONWEALTH AVE: City Leaders Need To Step Up For Their Own Policies

> MOVING BEYOND CAR LEVEL OF SERVICE (LOS): Measurable and Meaningful Criteria for Transportation Investments, Project Designs, and Development Mitigation (revised)

> EFFECTIVE AND DEMOCRATIC CITY (AND TRANSPORTATION) PLANNING: Neither Top-Down nor Bottom-Up Is Enough

> SLOWING TRAFFIC TO A TARGET SPEED: How To Make Our Streets Safer

> MODELING POSITIVE CITY-CONSTITUENCY RELATIONS: How Boston’s Transportation Department is Working with the Bicycling Community – and Creating Better Roads

WALK, BIKE, RUN: Unity and Tension In Non-Motorized Alliances

December 8, 2014

It wasn’t that long ago that Boston’s walking, bicycling, and transit advocacy groups saw each other as part of the problem. Faced with the hostile fragmentation, government policy-makers moved slowly or not at all. Boston wasn’t unusual. To the extent that cities had active transportation advocacy groups, the discordance was common.

Today, urban areas (and some states) have two general types of much-more coordinated active-transportation activism. In many cities the dominant group is an all-inclusive alliance of non-motorized movers such as New York-based Transportation Alternatives that combines walkers, joggers, runners, and cyclists. In other cities, mode-specific groups lead the way although they tend to work in partnership with each other. Boston has both: LivableStreets Alliance has, from its inception 10 years ago, seen itself as representing both foot and wheels; the other major advocacy groups – Boston Cyclists Union, MassBike, WalkBoston – maintain their single-mode foci.

Because there have been few walking-oriented advocacy groups around the nation (America Walks, the national coalition, is less than 10 years old), much of the national trend towards inclusivity seems to come from former bicycle-only groups expanding their scope, an evolution that makes enormous political sense since bicyclists are a small but well organized minority while walkers comprise a majority but are generally unorganized. Together they have many times the clout against their common enemy – our society’s car-centric infrastructure, policies, and cultural tendencies. However, whether internalized in one group or as a coalition among several, the emerging multi-modal alliance is not as deep or as tight as it needs to be in order to survive the coming challenges raised by more conservative political leadership at several levels of government. We need, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, to move together or we shall all go nowhere.

Continue Reading »

THE DANGERS OF SAFETY: Why Focusing on Car Accidents May Hurt Our Health

November 18, 2014

Everyone officially puts “safety first.” Everyone wants to prevent accidents. Car crashes are treated as lead stories on TV news – the images are horrific and we all fear our vulnerability. But, in fact, our roads are safer than ever. In 1956, when Interstate construction began, the national fatality rate was 6.05 per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). By 2011, the fatality rate had dropped to 0.8 per 100 million VMT on the Interstate and 1.1 (the lowest ever recorded) nationwide, even though about 85% of people including those in metro areas, still get to work by car. (Massachusetts has the nation’s lowest fatality rate, 0.62!)

Studies have shown, and the Traffic Engineering Profession has internalized, that highway accidents go down when there are wide lanes, gentle curves, no sight-line obstructing hills, limited entering/exiting locations with long ramps, no visual distractions other than large and uniform directional signage, and the absence of slower or more vulnerable traffic.   The Interstate is safest when it is “error tolerant” and forgiving of driver distraction. (Other contributors along the same lines: slide-resistant pavement, break-away sign and light poles, and better guardrails.

But the reality is that safety lapses aren’t the biggest transportation-related source of injury. In fact, putting too much emphasis on preventing car crashes can make non-highway streets more dangerous – not only for pedestrians and cyclists but also for car occupants! Car accidents cause half as many deaths and several multiples fewer health problems than transportation-caused air, water, and noise pollution.   The amount of paved land in our cities makes us more vulnerable to climate change, rising temperatures, and floods while housing sprawl makes us less resilient in terms of agriculture and disaster-recovery.   Most subtly, life in and around automobiles changes the way we relate to our neighbors and friends, reducing our collective social capital and our individual life style satisfaction.

Continue Reading »

ROADS ARE NOT THE DESTINATION: Celebration and Concern on the MassPike (Allston-I-90) Project

November 11, 2014

As our nation has painfully learned over the past fifty years from the destructive practices of the Interstate’s old scorched-earth invasion, focusing a transportation planning process on the need to satisfy car traffic trends is dangerous. (Full disclosure: I live in a house that was supposed to be ripped down for construction of the stopped-at-the-last-minute Inner Belt highway.) It’s a bit like the stories about the surgeon who announces that the operation was a success although unfortunately the patient died. Other than in romantic road movies, mobility is not a goal in itself. We move in order to accomplish something. Transportation is simply a means to an end.

So we in the Commonwealth can be proud that MassDOT’s 2006 Highway Design Guide was a national leader in its inclusion of pedestrian and bicycle facilities and its insistence on Context Sensitive approaches – designing a road starting “from the outside” of the right-of-way then “working inwards” to the road itself, meaning taking into account both the nature of its surroundings and the space needed for sidewalks and bicycle facilities.   The even more assertive subsequent (and also nationally admired) policies – the Healthy Transportation Compact and Directive, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction goals and GreenDOT program, the Mode Shift and Transportation Oriented Development Initiatives – all build on the strengths of the Design Guide. These policies recognize that while car travel is and will continue to be a vital part of many people’s daily lives and our state’s economic activity, our future prosperity and well-being depends on our ability to re-balance our lopsidedly car-centric transportation system and investments by putting a lot more attention (and money) into transit, bicycling, and walking facilities.

Of course, we’ve all sworn to ourselves to change an old way of doing something, only to fall back into old patterns soon after.   Going from decision to habit – or from policy to implementation, and then to institutionalized default – requires paying attention, not giving up, and a willingness to correct the inevitable missteps. It requires accepting that transportation design must be used as a tool for moving us towards a desired future rather than simply a reflection of current trends. Which is why what’s happening with MassDOT’s Allston-I-90 Realignment Project, a quarter-billion dollar project creating a major Gateway into Boston and Cambridge, is both heartening and worrisome.

Continue Reading »

TRUCKIN’ ON: Reducing the danger of Trucks and other Large Vehicles

October 28, 2014

Trucks are only 4% of vehicles in the United States but cause about 7% of pedestrian fatalities and 11% of cyclist fatalities. The disparity is even higher in urban areas – a London analysis found that the 4% of vehicles that were trucks were involved in nearly 53% of cyclist fatalities. In Boston, 7 out of 9 cyclist fatalities in 2012-13 involved trucks or buses. Many of those deaths were preventable.

Of the pedestrians and cyclists killed by trucks in the US, one-quarter and one-half, respectively, are first hit by the side of the truck, then fall under the rear wheels and are crushed as the vehicle turns. Almost all of those deaths were preventable.

There are a variety of reasons for the deadliness of these interactions: individual behavior, the legal and cultural decision-making context created by law and regulation and public campaigns, the design of roads and intersections, and the nature of the vehicles themselves.  Paying attention to these will help prevent accidents. But no matter how careful we are, some accidents will happen and it is inexcusable to not implement the proven, relatively easy and inexpensive way to reduce the severity of the resulting injuries: putting side-guards on trucks and wheel-guards on buses. It’s time to move.  Continue Reading »

MAKING “COMPETE STREET” OPERATIONAL: MassDOT Actives “Active Streets Certification (and Grant)” Program

August 20, 2014

City after city has found that making their streets safer and friendly for everyone – more walkable, bikeable, transit accessible and “socializable” – makes them more attractive to current and prospective residents and businesses. Not to mention the positive impact on reducing pollution, promoting public health, and dealing with climate change issues. The basic idea of a Complete Street is pretty straightforward: a travel corridor that has specific infrastructure for all modes including cars, bikes, foot, and (if present) buses, trucks, and trolleys. (Although having a multi-use – bike and walk – path alongside a railroad track is now allowed in Massachusetts, this combination is beyond the scope of most Complete Streets policies.)

However, turning this goal into design is complicated. Often, motor-focused traffic engineers continue to prioritize car capacity while including the minimally allowed “amenities” for everything else. Even well-meaning designers have trouble identifying and balancing possible friction points between pedestrians and cyclists. And few, if any, US Transportation Agencies have picked up on the European insight that the best way to relieve urban car and transit congestion is to decisively prioritize bicycling.

While some Complete Streets action occurs on the initiative of individual road designers, a more typical starting point is the adoption of an agency, municipal, or state-wide Complete Streets policy – a signifying event also endorsed by the National Complete Streets Coalition (now part of the national Smart Growth Alliance).

In Massachusetts, several broad coalitions including the ACT Fresh Coalition organized by the Mass Public Health Association and the Transportation for Massachusetts Coalition (T4Mass), pushed for and won Legislative inclusion of a $50 million Complete Streets Certification And Grant Program (H.4046 Acts of 2014) as part of the state’s recent Transportation Bond Bill. (Full disclosure: LivableStreets Alliance is part of ACT Fresh and I sit on the Coalition’s Steering Committee.) Being part of the Bond Bill means that the Administration has the authority to set up the program, but does not imply any requirement that it do so. Given the huge unfunded backlog of maintenance, repair, and new transportation projects it was not totally surprising that MassDOT initially decided to postpone activating this program.

However, in response to urgings from advocates, and in line with its own increasingly progressive policies, MassDOT has just announced that it will craft rules and procedures for the program, and perhaps even distribute “seed funds” this fall, before we all have to start over with the next Governor. Not only does this begin creating a “carrot” that will entice additional municipalities to move forward on this issue, it also positions the program for a quick ramp up under the next Administration.

Building on the National Complete Streets Coalition suggestions, the advocacy coalitions have also made some key recommendations for what criteria should be required for Complete Streets Certification. The recommendations state that while communities that have begun work on Complete Streets through the creation of Guidelines (e.g. Boston’s Complete Streets Design Guidelines, Cambridge’s Vehicle Trip Reduction and Parking Demand Management ordinances) should be recognized and eligible for some funding, it is important that the Certification Program set official adoption by the Board of Selection/City Council of a resolution or policy, by-law, or ordinance as the goal. The policy should, at a minimum, include the following:

> Acknowledgement that all projects on every road in the jurisdiction – whether state- or city-owned – are potential opportunities to include Complete Streets elements and a commitment that every maintenance, repair, full or partial reconstruction, sewer/water or utility work, or new construction/expansion activity implement the policy – including all Private Developments;

>The creation or identification of a municipal body or municipal staff (e.g., working group, task force, official committee, planning staff, transportation staff, etc.) to advise decision makers on implementation;

> Establishment or confirmation of a Review Process for Private Developments to ensure both that interior roads follow Complete Streets guidelines and that new gaps are not created in the area’s bicycle and pedestrian network;

> Provisions for clear and accountable exceptions to the policy;

> Identification and regular updating of information and training on best practices and resources for implementing Complete Streets;

> Base-line mode-share and accident data (particularly for pedestrians and bicyclists) be collected and, along with Complete Street mileage data, regularly shared with MassDOT – most simply by doing counts at specific locations at certain times twice a year for as long as a municipality is receiving funding, especially before and after Complete Streets improvements are done on a street or intersection.

To ensure that less affluent communities or communities with less planning staff capacity could benefit as much as possible from the program, the Legislation requires that at least a third of the funds be awarded to municipalities with a median household income below that Commonwealth’s average. The Coalition builds on that innovative beginning to propose that 10% of the funds be given to municipalities for Phase I work — capacity building to be used primarily for the non-construction type of work. Once an official policy was adopted, the project-ready municipality would be eligible for design and construction-oriented Phase II funds.

The full text of the Coalition’s letter outlining their recommendations follows…

——————————-   Continue Reading »

STABILIZING EQUITABLE COMMUNITIES: Gentrification, Displacement, and Markets

August 13, 2014

It wasn’t long ago, when regional rail-trail conversions were the leading strategy for creating multi-use non-motorized travel corridors, that the biggest opposition came from suburbanites fearing that the bike paths would bring intruders (meaning poor or Black people) into their backyards and lower their property values.   Today, as the action has shifted to our reviving cities, there is opposition from low-income residents worried that the neighborhood improvements they’ve demanded for decades – better transit, bike facilities, parks, street lights, new construction – will attract upscale newcomers, raise property values, and cause displacement.

The fears of the suburbanites were always groundless. But, unfortunately, the fears of inner city people – especially in reviving cities such as Boston, NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco – have a strong basis in fact, especially around transportation facilities – a recent study found that rents go up about $43/month for each 100 meters closer to a station. The working class Davis Square where I once hung out disappeared with the new T stop. Planning for the Green Line extension to Somerville’s Union Square has unleashed property speculation and driven up rents. Smart investors are already gobbling up property along Dorchester’s future Fairmont Line.

THE LIGHTENING ROD EFFECT

It’s not that the streetscape improvements, transit access, bike paths, green space, or public buildings are the real cause of the upscaling. Larger demographic, economic, and historic pressures have built up around certain cities like a gigantic thunderstorm roiling with electric charge. The power surge doesn’t flow everywhere – its starts downtown, along the waterfront or on hilltops, in areas with desirable houses or open space, and where it’s possible to easily get to downtown workplaces without using a car, while at the same time easy to use a car to get out of town. Other places, lacking these amenities or having some negative characteristic (too much crime, too many poor people, too Black) are skipped – nationwide, a recent study found that for every “neighborhood that’s gentrified since 1970, 10 have remained poor and another 12 have slipped into poverty….racial composition did in fact have a significant effect.” In those that did gentrify, what moved a run-down neighborhood on to the hit list, or even transformed an undesirable location into something that upper-income people found attractive, was often new public investment. Sometimes small, sometimes major, these local improvements simply provide a lightning rod for the surrounding energy, focusing attention on a particular place and unleashing the creative destruction of profit-seeking.

The recent move of the better-off back into the city may seem like the impersonal and diffuse working out of personal choices and market dynamics. But markets and choices are shaped by policies. The rightward tilt of politics in recent years, both in the US and internationally, has created escalating inequality giving the upper 20% of our own population and the top 1% of many less stable nations enormous unneeded wealth, which they’re using to buy property – driving up prices in their preferred neighborhoods, pushing the next income layer of renters and buyers into other neighborhoods, and ratcheting up price inflation across the entire housing market.

However, the impact of all this can – must, and can only – be also addressed through public policies and programs. In fact, unless public officials begin implementing ways to create more sustainable conditions for middle-income and lower-income residents, our cities are likely to get strangled by their economic “success” – just as the success of Kendall Square has made it too expensive for new start-ups to locate there. True: given our messed up tax system it is new development and rising property values that provides the funds for physical improvements and urban services.   But it’s also true that a city’s vitality depends not only on its attractiveness to young professionals and rich investors but also, to an extent we seldom acknowledge, on its cultural (meaning ethnic and racial and place-of-birth) diversity and the presence of the rest of the workforce (meaning middle-income and poor families).

MORE IS NOT ENOUGH

Simply building more will not eliminate the pressure on middle and low-income families. In theory, a gargantuan increase in the amount of new housing would create a more fluid and affordable market. Reform of our damagingly old and dysfunctional zoning laws (unfortunately killed in the most recent Legislatative session by real estate lobbyists) and more intelligent mortgage criteria would certainly help. But it would take nearly 30,000 new units over the next six years to merely keep up with current demand, and many more than that to bend the cost curve down – and only 3,200 are on track for completion in the coming year, almost all of which are downtown luxury condos. We simply can’t build our way out of this crisis. In San Francisco, advocates are promoting a ballot initiative requiring at least 30% of new housing to be reserved for middle- and low-income families. Developers say this ignores the financial reality of new construction. Advocates disagree, saying that the limited amount of developable land makes it impossible to satisfy the high-end market, meaning there will never be significant spillover to middle-income or low-income segments.

Given the growing inequality of our society as a whole, if left to itself the real estate market will continue its current tilt towards the highest end of the luxury market, with negative spill-over effects on everyone else. The solution, therefore, is to change the market by changing the context in which it operates, to intervene in the market to change the profits to be made (or not made) for certain types of development, and to reduce or eliminate market pressure on some percentage of our city’s housing.

THERE ARE WAYS

Success requires using the full range of strategies. The city has to help create more housing in ways that protect its long-term affordability – lowering construction costs by using tax-foreclosed and city-owned land, using limited-equity ownership contracts, subsidizing mortgages in ways that translate into partial public ownership, mortgage pools for low-income borrowers, etc. This also requires an expansion of home-ownership training programs and mutual-support groups to strengthen families and communities. For those unable to afford to purchase, we need family-appropriate (e.g. multi-bedroom) scattered site public housing programs that are well designed and well run as well as more rent subsidy programs – some of which can be negotiated with developers seeking development rights or who have been found in violation of building codes (the offer is to avoid criminal prosecution by fixing up a unit and renting it at below-market levels).

Boston is starting to move in the right direction: there are plans to turn nearly 200 vacant lots along the new Fairmont Line into one- to three-family homes with about 400 units, although it’s not clear that the properties’ financing and ownership will be structured in ways that preserve their long-term affordability or just released into the market. In addition, the city has foreclosure-ownership of two huge lots, the old Cote Ford car dealership site in Mattapan and the three-acre former Maxwell box warehouse in Dorchester. Both provide huge opportunity for both local economic development and housing.

And for those who do want to move out of their old neighborhoods, we need much more aggressive state-wide enforcement of anti-discrimination laws as well as more effective “anti-snob zoning” program in the suburbs.

Those of us who favor expanding opportunities for people to walk and bike, want to increase access to green space in every neighborhood, care about the quality of streets, and believe new construction can help create local jobs – we need to expand our focus and demand that public investment walk on two legs: one leg for upgraded facilities and environment, one leg for population stability and support.

—————
Continue Reading »

Project Selection Criteria: Public Hearing Testimony

July 29, 2014

The following was submitted to the state Project Selection Advisory Council at their 7/29/14 public hearing in Boston.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this incredibly important topic. And thank you for all the work that you have already done on this incredibly complicated issue. My name is Steven E. Miller; I’m a senior staff at the Harvard School of Public Health and a member of the state’s Healthy Transportation Compact Advisory Committee. I’m also a founding Board member of LivableStreets Alliance which, as I’m sure you know, is a member of the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition.   My testimony reflects all those identities.

My testimony will address three issues. First, the framing within which we need to address the entire topic of Project Selection Criteria. Second, the specific issue of Regional Equity, which I know has been a vexing theme in your deliberations, along with a quick comment about what projects should be subject to the evaluation process you are beginning to shape. And finally, some thoughts about how to make the criteria categories you are currently using more effective and powerful.

Continue Reading »

FROM BETTER TO WORSE ON COMMONWEALTH AVE: City Leaders Need To Step Up For Their Own Policies

July 17, 2014

For a while it was feeling like stodgy Boston was jumping back into the elite group of city’s whose actions around transportation (and its joined-at-the-hip land-use twin) set the pace for the rest of the country. Our environmentally-based Smart Growth policies were state-of-the-art, which became even more valuable as climate-change storms and rising sea levels revealed our coastal vulnerability. After years of letting the state take the lead around transit and roads, Boston leaped ahead on mobility. City Hall, working with advocates, used the political opening created by the Hub On Wheels festival to set up the Boston Bike Program with its rapid rollout of bike lanes, its Roll-It-Forward outreach to low-income families, a visionary Bike Network Plan, and the wonderful Hubway system that is increasingly understood as the “last mile” of our transit system as well as a relief valve for both over-capacity trolleys and car-congested roads. And all this culminated in the cutting-edge Complete Streets Guide that integrated Green, Smart, and Multimodal by both dealing with the safety needs of cars, buses, walkers, and cyclists as well as treating streets as a powerful leverage for improved neighborhood cohesion, safety, and economic development.

It was inspiring; exciting; promising of things to come. It made Boston a national leader and a better place to live.

Which is why it is confusing and frustrating to find that Boston’s transportation agencies are proposing such a backward — and unsafe — set of proposals for Commonwealth Avenue in clear violation of its own policies. Two years ago, before many of the new policies were put in place, the city unveiled their ideas at a 25% design stage meeting. Those proposals were heavily criticized as inadequate or even dangerous by most attendees. After two years of silence, the city has suddenly reissued substantially the same thing and called it a 75% design. They say it’s safer, but the facts say otherwise. It’s upsetting to think that the transportation leadership doesn’t believe in the city’s own vision or follow their own guidelines.

The Walsh Administration needs to focus some attention on the currently overlooked transportation departments. This is a signature project that has to be done right. If it does not fully embody the city’s own exemplary policies we can unfortunately look forward to nasty and protracted project-by-project fights for years to come.

Continue Reading »

MOVING BEYOND CAR LEVEL OF SERVICE (LOS): Measurable and Meaningful Criteria for Transportation Investments, Project Designs, and Development Mitigation (revised)

June 30, 2014

Scaled from A to F like an elementary school report card, automobile Level of Service (LOS) metrics are easy to measure and easy to understand. LOS is, essentially, the average amount of delay compared to a “free-flowing” road where everyone is moving at full design-speed – congestion! It is a powerful indicator: it has a direct relationship to the quality of the user experience (the amount of congestion and “lost time”), the environmental impact (longer passage time equals more emissions), and the road infrastructure’s adequacy (the relationship of traffic volume to road capacity) – with the car-industry-pleasing implication that the key to improving LOS is increasing capacity.

For the past half century, when the auto industry was driving national economic growth, improving car LOS was seen not only as a transportation priority but as the key to local prosperity and the “good life” for upwardly mobile citizens. Raising LOS was a required goal of nearly every transportation investment and project design. Not surprisingly, millions of dollars of federal Interstate Highway research has been poured into figuring out how various road features raise or lower LOS – most of which boil down to getting rid of anything that might prevent cars from continuously going full speed such as sharp turns, adjacent distractions, crosswalks, bike lanes, and buses.

But at some point this strategy imploded as the “if you build it they will come” dynamic repeatedly filled every new road, undermining both commerce and personal life.

Today, most of us have a more nuanced view of car traffic and a broader understanding of what improves our quality of life. Moving as many cars as fast as possible is no longer the highest priority for most of us. We’ve learned that car traffic can also negatively affect a broad range of policy issues, from environmental and climate protection to community integration and neighborhood equity, from public health and safety to land use and conservation, from business growth to job distribution, and more.

But what can replace LOS? We don’t need something perfect, just something better than what we’ve got. The need to go beyond LOS when deciding between possible investments and for evaluating transportation system designs has become part of the national transportation policy discussion. Many groups have begun working on these questions: people within the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), Association of Pedestrian and Bicycling Professionals (APBP), the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the American Public Health Association’s Transportation Group (APHA), the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and others. Congress wrote in a requirement for “performance evaluation” into the most recent federal Transportation Funding Act, MAP-21. However, the regulations emerging from the Federal Highway Administration seem to focus on traditional traffic safety issues rather than picking up the policy themes of mode-change announced by the past two Transportation Secretaries.

This broadening of the decision-making and evaluative horizon makes life complicated for Transportation Planners. A senior MassDOT Engineer recently complained that the members of the Advisory Task Force for the I-90 Allston Interchange project were asking him to incorporate too many factors, saying that “we are not in the business of community development; we build roads.” But roads are a key part of community development – his comment, while technically correct, is indicative of the degree to which we’ve not yet found effective ways to seamlessly connect our policies, our transportation investment decision-making, our road design criteria, and our transportation system evaluations.

Continue Reading »

 
Powered by Wordpress and MySQL. Theme by Shlomi Noach, openark.org